Customizing the fit of your kayak

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Foam pads, correctly applied to the seat and thigh braces, are essential for creating the snug, comfortable fit paddlers need.

Minicell foam is the material of choice for making these pads. Although it's expensive, it's soft, firm, and easily shaped with hand tools. Ethafoam, which is less soft and harder to shape, is sometimes encountered. Sheets of neoprene foam will create durable pads, but you can't alter the thickness of the material.

Kayak Padding

Hip Pads

In addition to providing a comfortable place to sit, kayak seats are designed to provide hip support. This improves control when leaning your boat and can be a great help when rolling. If the sides of a seat do not cradle your hips, they can be outfitted with hip pads to fit snugly. Hip pads are made from wedge-shaped pieces of Minicell with the wide part at the top. Smaller paddlers require thicker foam wedges than those required by larger paddlers. Although rodeo paddlers use pads that actually hook over their hip bones, most boaters are simply looking for a snug, comfortable fit.

Pre-cut hip pads can be purchased from a kayak outfitter, but making them from scratch is an easy way to get some experience working with Minicell. To begin, cut the basic wedge shape from a Minicell sheet using a serrated knife, a hacksaw blade, or, ideally, a bandsaw. (You can also use wedge-shaped canoe knee pads: one knee pad, cut in half, will create two hip pads thick enough for all but the smallest people.)

Hip Pads

Next, shape the rough cut Minicell by smoothing it. Dragon Skin metal sandpaper, a Red Devil product found in some hardware stores, shapes and contours Minicell best. Staple sheets of it to round or flat blocks to increase its usefulness and service life. Coarse grades of sandpaper also work well. Check the pads for fit, thin them as needed, then round off the sides. The bottom of the pad should taper so it is quite narrow, so when it is glued in place it won't catch on your clothing during a fast exit.

When the shaping is done, use a water-soluble marker to mark the desired position of these pads on your seat or thigh braces. Most people install hip pads with the top edge just below the cockpit rim. The flat sides of the seat make it easy to get a good fit. Performance-oriented paddlers like to raise the pads up so they're even with the top of the cockpit rim. This provides better support, but shaping the pad to fit above the seat and around the inside of the cockpit rim is pretty tricky.

Seat Pads

Most kayak seats are comfortable enough, but occasionally you'll encounter one with an uncomfortable projection in the center or a high front lip, which cuts off circulation. Putting foam on top of a high point makes it stick out even more! Use the foam to improve the shape of the seat rather than to pad it. By placing 1/2" foam next to the offending part, you can make a lip or bump less prominent. If the seat slants backward, you can make it flatter by padding the back half only, rather than the entire seat. This may reduce back strain. Again, mark the positions of the pads with a water-soluble marker.

Thigh Braces and Pads

Roto-molded kayaks come with thigh braces that slip in front of the cockpit beneath the deck. These are not knee braces; if they are correctly positioned, you grip them with the inside portion of your upper thigh. If these braces are positioned incorrectly you can move the seat forward or back an inch or two. This may unbalance your boat, so check the trim afterward. With you sitting in it, the kayak should float flat on the water without appearing bow or stern heavy. Some manufacturers offer replacement sets of thigh braces, placed closer to the seat, to fit shorter people. This is a better solution because it won't alter your weight distribution inside the boat.

Thigh Brace

Another feature to consider is the degree of hook molded into the brace. If there isn't enough you can't hold on; if there's too much the outfitting may be uncomfortably tight. What constitutes the right amount of hook depends on your size and build; small, skinny folks need more hook, while larger people with big thighs require less. Expert paddlers and rodeo contenders who seldom exit their boats always want a tighter fit than what might be comfortable for beginners. Some manufacturers offer several versions of both their thigh braces with varying amounts of hook. This is a valuable option.

If no thigh braces are installed, the wedge-shaped foam knee pads sold to canoeists can be glued underneath the deck with contact cement. This is an elegant solution for touring kayakers. Wedge-shaped pads can also be glued underneath existing thigh braces to increase the amount of hook. The widest part of the wedge is glued on the side nearest the cockpit opening-the thicker the wedge, the tighter the outfitting. Adjust the thickness of the wedge as needed, trim the foam to follow the shape of the thigh brace or cockpit rim, and glue it in place. It's often easier to work if you remove the thigh braces prior to gluing.

Because Minicell is slippery when wet, many paddlers prefer to use neoprene pads on thigh braces. Neoprene can be used either by itself or as a thin, separate layer glued to the Minicell. Customarily, 1/8" neoprene is employed as the outer layer on hip and thigh pads; 1/2" material is often used by itself.

Gluing with Contact Cement

Foam pads should be glued to your kayak with contact cement, but not all of these glues are suitable. Some brands have recently been reformulated for safety or environmental reasons. Many are not waterproof and lack holding power. Use a commercial-grade waterproof contact cement. It is flammable, nasty-smelling stuff! Hydrogrip Adhesive, Shore Adhesive, Sea Bond, Sta-Bond, and Shoemaker's "Barge Cement" are all good choices. No smoking in the shop, please!

Contact cement can be pretty unforgiving to work with. You only get one chance to position a pad correctly; then, like it or not, it's stuck. Here's how to get good results:

  • Apply the glue in a thin, even coating to both sides of the joint. Two thin coats are better than one thick coat.
  • Let the glue dry to a tack-free state; it should be sticky, yet not pull away when touched. In cold or humid weather, the glue tends to congeal and never gets sticky. You can use a heat gun or a hair dryer to get good results under these conditions. Be careful not to apply too much heat, as it could melt the fittings or warp the boat!
  • Apply heat from a heat gun if the glue has dried for too long. It will often become tacky again.
  • Line up the top edge of the pad with one edge of the marked attachment point, then lower the foam into place. Press the pad down, then press very firmly over its entire surface. Finally, sit down in the boat and wiggle around to ensure good overall contact.
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